Embrace the Wrongness: What Replay Is and Isn’t For

I’m gratified by all the attention given to my last post, about writers engaging bad opinions by nobodies! There have been a couple of responses in particular that I greatly appreciated. Dan Brooks expanded on the post by talking about how prevalent this practice is more generally, not in sports—only two weeks ago we had the fake #BoycottStarWarsVII controversy, in which people were embarrassingly eager to disagree with folks who were too racist to see a Star Wars movie—and arguing that “finding a bad argument to disagree with is functionally equivalent to bringing that argument into existence.” On the other hand, Craig Calcaterra, whose tweets I criticized in the post, wrote a thoughtful response in which he pointed out that though these opinions seem insignificant, taken together they make up the audience expectations for sports talk radio and the like. It’s all part of a larger debate the Internet is having right now, in the age of social media and click-based journalism: are awful views better shamed, or ignored? How do we tell the attention-seeking trolls from the earnest folks who might legitimately be persuaded?

But anyway, enough with media criticism for now. Let’s get back to rules disputes.

For me the most interesting story in this year’s baseball playoffs, apart from how the Royals apparently brought a Game Genie with them, was a couple of ticky-tack instant replay overturns: one in the ALDS, one in the ALCS, and both on plays in which a runner seemed to successfully steal a base, but then was called out when replay showed he had briefly left contact with the bag after beating the throw. Fortunately these were both against the Royals, who brush aside such setbacks like so many cobwebs, but a lot of commentators, even those who are solidly pro-replay, decried the idea of plays being overturned based on what seemed to many to be marginal reasons. Craig Calcaterra, distinguishing the ALDS review from a review of “a baseball play that was clearly called wrong by an umpire,” argues that only the latter is in the spirit of replay: “Fundamentally, this review took the baseball out of the game and turned it into tennis or something.” Joe Posnanski expresses a similar idea, that replay collapses distinctions between details in an anti-baseball way: “…the more we slow down this game, the more we’re going to see stuff like that, silly little stuff that should not matter, but in slow motion does matter. We move away from the spirit of the game, I think.” Tom Ley, writing for Deadspin, picks up on this same idea that replay should be used selectively, and like Calcaterra and Posnanski suggests that its indiscriminate use is not true to the spirit of baseball (his piece is called “Replay is Turning Baseball into Football and I Hate It”). He lays out his case in a paragraph that’s worth quoting in its entirety:

This isn’t really the kind of mistake instant replay was meant to rectify. There are certainly moments in which replay is a very good thing to have—determining if a home run really cleared the top of the fence or whether a ball is fair or foul come to mind—but the game is not served well when it’s used as a tool to reverse plays based on a base runner’s momentum popping his foot off the bag for a fraction of a second. Bases are hard, and I bet that if you looked at every slide in super slo-mo, you’d see a lot of feet popping a few millimeters off the bag for a split second. When a guy who’s functionally safe—and would be called such in most circumstances—gets called out like this, it makes the game more arbitrary, not less.

The central premise in these arguments is that replay is not meant to be applied to every incorrect call, which is somewhat radical if you think about it. Ley, for instance, suggests here that a runner who is out according to the rules may still be “functionally safe” if he would be called safe in all circumstances, but for high-tech replay review, making “correctness” not only relative but actually subjective. If you accept this, what follows is that we should agree to not know, or not care, about marginally incorrect calls rather than using them to halt or reverse the momentum of the game using replay.

Needless to say, this sentiment was not universally shared.

The idea that replay is meant, first and foremost, to make wrong calls right is pretty compelling on its face, and can feel silly to argue against. Even in a piece acknowledging that replays like these pose a potential problem, Jesse Spector refers to “the equally valid spirit of replay, that it’s important to get the call right whenever possible.” That’s directly contrary to the idea that the spirit of replay is actually violated by overturns like these. As Rob Neyer writes, in response to the “against the spirit” idea, “I’m not sure that anyone can say with perfection what [replay] was ‘meant for,’ except to get the majority of the calls correct, according to the rule book.”

Are the absolutists right? Is replay about getting calls right, full stop? Certainly there’s nothing in the rulebook that says “replay will only be used on the calls that really matter.” On the other hand, just because the game is played according to strict rules doesn’t mean we have to evaluate it according to those rules. If we care about the viability of replay in the sport, we shouldn’t settle for “the rules are the rules and that’s it.” We should think seriously about what sport we want and how replay can give it to us.

As my longtime readers will remember, this very question—what is replay for?—was the topic of my very first post here, and—time to lay my cards on the table—I took a position similar to the former group, the “violates the spirit of replay” group. What I wrote then was that ideally replay is not, as you would expect, about getting every call right, but about correcting bad calls. A bad call, as I (and I think most sports fans) use the term, is not just a call that’s incorrect; a bad call is one that is obviously incorrect. That calls come in varying degrees of badness is self-evident when you consider the varying intensity of the adjectives we use to describe them (“that’s a horrendous call”), and it’s equally self-evident that it’s the bad calls that most hurt the entertainment value of the game. What’s less self-evident is my argument that replay should aim to eliminate the bad calls and not particularly care about the merely incorrect ones. If fixing a bad call is a major benefit, isn’t fixing a less bad but still incorrect call a minor benefit?

In isolation, yes, but here’s how I would think about it. The goal of replay is to improve the game; if it doesn’t do that, there’s no reason for it. Is the game hurt by blatantly incorrect calls? We know it is, because when they happen, people complain bitterly about them; in fact, people are still complaining about the most significant blown calls (Denkinger, Gant-Hrbek) 20 or 30 years later. Bad calls leave losers feeling wronged and winners feeling guilty, and just generally make the game look bad—hence the suspension of the officials at fault in the Miami-Duke play last Saturday. Eliminating calls of this kind is a clear positive.

Now, apply that reasoning to a call which is incorrect, but not bad—say, a baserunning play in which the runner beats the throw, but pops off the bag for a brief moment, so brief that you need slow-motion HD video to perceive it. For the sake of argument let’s supposed this happened fairly regularly in the pre-replay days, which seems reasonable since we had two cases like this in two weeks of playoffs. Does anyone feel that the pre-replay game was hurt by these incorrect calls? Calls missed by infinitesimal margins, that nobody had any inkling were wrong? Of course not. As Posnanski says, we only care about them because we now have replay; replay doesn’t just give us the cure, but the disease too.

Yes, all else being equal one would prefer the calls be perfect every time; consistency is important for the rules to be fair, and fair rules are a necessary component to athletic competition. But while fairness is the primary virtue to the participants in the contest, to the spectators fairness is a means to an end: namely, entertainment, the only non-professional reason to watch in the first place. We prefer fairness and consistency because we find that they make sports and games entertaining (whereas none of our other diversions—fiction, fact, politics—are based on fairness at all), but that’s not all that’s required for the sport to be entertaining, and inconsistency isn’t the only thing that can screw it up. Breaks in the action, particularly unexpected ones, hurt the entertainment; so does anything that makes us more aware of the rules than of the game—in the end, we want the competition between fielders and base-stealers, or between cornerbacks and receivers, to be determined by their respective athleticism more than we want it to be determined by brief moments off the bag or by the definition of a “football move.” That’s what people mean when they say that overturns like the ones in question go against the spirit of replay: replay was supposed to help us focus on the game more and the officiating less—get the calls right so that we can enjoy the game instead of grousing “we would have won if they hadn’t blown that call”—but marginal overturns do the opposite. They turn broadcasters and fans into forensic investigators and bring “rules analysts” into our lives. The gain in consistency is more than offset by all the other harm done.

To thread this needle, we have to do what for some people is the hardest thing in the world: we have to accept the loss of a certain amount of consistency. We have to knowingly let some calls be wrong.

Let me try an analogy. There’s a policy proposal—it’s been put into place in Idaho, apparently—that would change certain traffic rules as they involve cyclists. Right now, cyclists have to obey the same stop signs and stoplights that cars do, but because of some fundamental differences between bikes and cars—it’s tiring to start from a full stop on a bike, but not in a car, and bikes are much less dangerous to the people around them, making it less vital for them to stop—many bike riders (myself included, in fact I was scolded by a cop for this earlier today) just ignore these signs whenever it seems safe to do so. The proposal would make this behavior legal, decreeing that bike riders are to treat stop signs like yield signs: only stopping when other vehicles are there first and otherwise going full speed ahead. This would, obviously, be inconsistent, and go against what we all were taught about what a stop sign means. Nevertheless, it has a number of advantages that justify this inconsistency:

  • It reflects what is already happening, and rules should generally not go against natural behavior without a clear reason to do so.
  • That reason doesn’t exist here, since bikes are much safer (lighter, easier to stop, more maneuverable) than cars.
  • In fact, there’s a positive reason for the inconsistency: it incentivizes behavior cities should want to see more of, namely bike-riding. (I imagine plenty of you loathe cyclists, but think about how much you loathe parking and traffic problems too.)
  • As the above Vox article notes, insisting on consistency would hide a deeper inconsistency, which is that the current traffic laws are designed for cars, not cyclists. Adjusting the laws to better reflect the realities is the truly consistent approach here.

Now, you might disagree with me that there’s no reason for bikes to stop at a stop sign like cars do; that’s a fine, substantive disagreement. What’s not substantive is to say that this is a bad proposal because the rules say you have to stop at a stop sign and that’s just the way it is. Traffic rules are not put into place to make sure that people follow traffic rules; they’re put into place to produce certain outcomes. If we can get better outcomes by tweaking or even overlooking those rules at certain times, that’s what we should do.

Similarly, a sport’s rules aren’t important in themselves; they’re important because they make the game fair, and hence entertaining. When the cost of enforcing them is greater than the benefit, we should react accordingly. Yes, everyone’s taught since Little League to maintain contact with the base the whole time, but those rules were designed for a world before slow-mo HD replay. The makers of the game didn’t account for millimeter-length distinctions between on the bag and off the bag. They couldn’t see them, so they didn’t care about them; we have the freedom to decide what we should care about. Personally, I care about exciting baserunning and a fast-moving game a lot more than I care about that fraction of an inch for a fraction of a second.

So, what do we do about it? My instinct is to agree with Neyer that changing the rules around sliding is not viable; it’s likely to cause as much confusion and legalism as it prevents. Plus, slides are not going to be the only source of ticky-tack replays. Instead, I think we should change the way we approach replay itself. My own proposal—a time limit to all reviews—you can read about back at my first post. Posnanski suggests that reviews should be made using only full-speed replays, no slow-mo. Calcaterra and others point out that if replay was initiated by a neutral official, rather than the managers, this kind of gamesmanship wouldn’t happen. All of these changes could help (and all would no doubt have drawbacks), but we’ll always have some vestige of this problem until we release our grip on the idea that, when it comes to the rules, the only consideration is right versus wrong. The rules are our tool, not our captor.

Image credit: “Astros 06 04 13-2” by thatlostdog is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

2 thoughts on “Embrace the Wrongness: What Replay Is and Isn’t For

  1. Hey thanks for putting up something on this, having read all the people you cited I’d had this issue on my mind since the playoffs. You gotta kinda feel like “be careful what you wish for” for baseball fans. If you ask for increased accuracy, this is what you get happen, as we zoom in on the rules we need to see exactly where the lines are (or where the contact with the bag is). While I do think a lot less of this would happen if we had a neutral official instead of the manager initializing reviews, I think generally this is something we have to live with if we want the right calls. I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying, but in practice I think we just have to take our medicine and now see the rules as EXACT in all cases. Unfortunately, as long as have this playoff system, the idea of “fairness” won’t be helped by all the reply systems in the world…


  2. Pingback: Disagreeing with the River: A Response to Jon Bois | The Spiel

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